Letter appears to end fight to save 440th Airlift Wing
By Drew Brooks | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 5, 2016
The Air Force will no longer have C-130s permanently based at Fort Bragg by the end of the year.
Army leaders have officially thrown their support behind a plan that includes the inactivation of the 440th Airlift Wing.
A letter to Congress from leaders from both services confirms the fears expressed by airmen from the unit, who said earlier this week they believed they would soon learn their fight to save the unit was over.
The letter was sent to members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee and signed by Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, acting Secretary of the Army Patrick J. Murphy, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley.
The leaders said increasing budget pressure was requiring the Air Force to manage its airlift fleet in the "most efficient manner possible."
The decision means the unit's planes and its remaining 550 airmen - who are meeting on post this weekend - will need to find new homes.
A Reserve wing, the 440th owns the last Air Force planes based at Fort Bragg's Pope Field, which was previously known as Pope Air Force Base.
The C-130 has been a fixture in the military community for 50 years, but is now far from its peak in the 1980s, when four C-130 squadrons called the Cape Fear region home.
As late as 2005, 50 C-130s regularly dotted the ramp at Pope. Today, only eight permanently based C-130s can be seen on the ramp.
Those planes are expected to be gone by September, when the 440th is expected to shutter its doors.
The Air Force alleges it can support Fort Bragg training with out-of-town units through the Joint Airborne/Air Transportability Training program, which matches air crews from across the nation to training on post.
In a letter dated Thursday, leaders from the Army and Air Force said they were confident in the latter's support of training at Fort Bragg.
Sen. Thom Tillis, whose amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act required the certification from both services, said he would keep a close watch to make sure that is the case.
"For as long as I am a U.S. senator, the Air Force can fully expect me to require that they demonstrate, on a monthly basis, how they are meeting their obligation to provide assets at Pope Airfield and fulfilling the training requirements of our brave men and women," Tillis said.
While Tillis may be willing to give the benefit of the doubt, some airmen are less convinced the Air Force will be successful.
One member of the 440th Airlift Wing, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, said the Air Force can already only support about 65 percent of Army training requests at Fort Bragg.
The 82nd Airborne Division has requested 60 training missions between now and April requested through the JA/ATT program.
Only 21 of those missions were assigned to Air Force units, with several training exercises scheduled for the next week still unfilled.
The list appears to mesh with worries from Fort Bragg leaders at several levels who have expressed concerns over the availability of Air Force planes in recent months.
Rep. Renee Ellmers, Fort Bragg's representatives in the House, said she has been told the Air Force could potentially require Fort Bragg paratroopers to travel to other locations to hitch a ride back to local drop zones to conduct airborne operations.
"I've heard everything, including a plan to bus soldiers to Charleston then fly back to Fort Bragg," Ellmers said, referring to Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina. "That's absolutely ridiculous."
The 440th Airlift Wing has a regularly scheduled drill set for the weekend.
A spokeswoman for the unit said the wing commander, Col. Karl Schmitkons, would address the unit's remaining 550 airmen during that time.
The letter appears to end a nearly two-year fight to save the 440th, which was marked for inactivation as part of the 2015 Air Force budget proposal.
The inactivation has been delayed several times. Air Force Reserve leaders have previously said the unit would shutter its doors at the end of the fiscal year this September.
The 440th Airlift Wing moved to what was then Pope Air Force Base as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Act.
When the Air Force base was absorbed into the much larger Fort Bragg, the wing continued operations as the only conventional unit with airplanes in the home of the airborne and Special Operations.
At its peak, the wing had approximately 1,200 airmen and civilians supporting 12 aircraft.
The decline to about 550 airmen has occurred because the unit has been blocked from welcoming airmen into the unit, even as hundreds have left for more sure jobs.
Airmen with the unit have said the loss of manpower has slowly drained the life from the wing, which has been unable to keep all of its aircraft flying due to fewer crews and maintenance workers.
The inactivation also effects the hundreds of airmen who wished to keep serving locally. They will be forced to find jobs in other units, or potentially lose benefits that come with their military service.
In the letter, officials said they consulted with the commanders of the 18th Airborne Corps, 82nd Airborne Division and Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg.
The Air Force had not consulted those commands when it first announced the decision to close the unit.
The letter pledges that the Air Force will meet the training and contingency support demands of Fort Bragg units "with no adverse effect to these units' daily training requirements or readiness."
"The Air Force remains fully committed to providing tactical airlift support to the Army, now and in the future," the letter reads. "Realistic training is the cornerstone of readiness, and the Air Force is proud of the role it plays in Army combat readiness."
Local leaders, including Army commanders at Fort Bragg, have said the inactivation of the wing would have a detrimental effect on training, citing the benefits of having a "hometown" air wing on hand.
Airmen from the 440th also have questioned the ability of the Air Force to provide more efficient service to units on Fort Bragg.
"There is absolutely no way this can be financially beneficial," one airman said earlier this week. "Who will hold the Air Force leadership responsible when three to five years from now they are trying to reinvent the wheel and spend even more money fixing the problem they created."
©2016 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)
Visit The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.) at www.fayobserver.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.